Childhood, Boyhood, Youth

by Leo Tolstoy

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Leo Tolstoy completed three of the planned four volumes of his autobiography before he changed his mind and decided not to write the last volume. Of these three portions, Youth is about as long as Childhood and Boyhood combined. Tolstoy later regretted what he saw as a sentimental tone that detracted from his seriousness. Nevertheless, because he carefully constructed the persona he presented, the young Tolstoy often seems wiser than his years. Many people who became important later in life were known to him in childhood, and their reappearance at various points adds a cohesive element to a narrative peppered with many disparate elements. This corresponds as well to his attachment to his boyhood home, including not only his family but the servants and workers. He attempts to come to terms with the poverty of the estate’s workers and neighboring farmers that sharply contrasts with his family’s status.

Tolstoy’s childhood was far from idyllic but rather was strongly shaped by the loss of his parents—his mother when he was two, and his father when he was eight—that left him an orphan. He associated his sensitivity to others’ misfortunes in part with those early experiences. In Boyhood, he speaks of forging new relationships, such as his friendship with Dmitri, that supplant those with his siblings. Youth, which picks up after he left home for university in Moscow, reveal his adolescent experimentations including intellectual posturing and his love for Sonya. The young Leo’s musings on love prefigure both the sentiments expressed in his novels and the writing style into which he would fit such sentiments.

Apparently Tolstoy abandoned the memoir enterprise in part because he came into his vocation of fiction writer. Writing about himself had been a kind of self-imposed apprenticeship in which he confronted the themes that would continue to concern him, such as economic and social injustice, the relationship of the individual concerns to the social whole, and Russia’s changing international importance. The autobiographical volumes offer reader insights into both the man and the writer in his formative years, along with a window into key issues affecting Russia’s people under the tsars’ rule.

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